Nauru: Government prohibits remote mental health care to MSF's former patients

An aerial view of the island of Nauru.
NAURU 2018 © MSF
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SYDNEY/NEW YORK, MARCH 1, 2019—Due to a sudden new measure prohibiting telemedicine on the Pacific island nation of Nauru, the medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is suspending its service providing remote psychological support to its former patients there.

On February 22, the Government of Nauru issued new regulations prohibiting the practice of telemedicine in the country. This came several weeks after MSF started a remote service providing psychological care via video or phone to patients whom MSF had been forced to leave in October 2018. These patients include asylum seekers and refugees held indefinitely on Nauru due to Australian asylum policies, as well as Nauruans.

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"These new regulations constitute yet another major obstruction to the provision of independent medical care on the island," said Paul McPhun, executive director of MSF Australia. "The decision diminishes access to mental health care for Nauruan, refugee, and asylum seeker patients alike."

The mental health suffering of refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru is among the most severe MSF has ever seen around the world, including in projects providing care for victims of torture. Many of these men, women, and children have spent more than five years on Nauru, with catastrophic effects on their mental health.

MSF staff on Nauru treated hundreds of mental health patients over 11 months, before the Nauruan government abruptly required MSF to leave last year. Of the 208 refugees and asylum seekers treated by MSF during this period, 30 percent had attempted suicide. Furthermore, on initial assessment, almost 30 percent of MSF's Nauruan patients appeared to have been neglected in terms of medical care, mainly due to a lack of available mental health care prior to MSF's arrival.

In the two weeks since the launch of MSF's remote mental health care service for former patients on Nauru, more than 40 people contacted MSF about receiving the service. This reinforces the assessment that services on the island remain inadequate and that the need for independent medical care remains high.

“We urge the Government of Nauru to reconsider the implementation of these regulations and accept the offer of additional mental health care capacity for the island,” McPhun said. “We are acutely concerned for our former patients. We simply don't know how much more these people can take."

MSF reiterates its call to immediately evacuate all asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru to a safe place where they can have fast access to permanent resettlement, alongside their families, so they can begin rebuilding their lives.